13 Questions with… Hilton’s Ben George

LATTE chats with Hiltons' SVP and Commercial Director, Asia Pacific

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At the recent ITLM Singapore conference, LATTE sat down with Hilton’s Senior Vice President and Commercial Director – Asia Pacific, Ben George, to hear how the hotel group is future-proofing the travel experience.

Ben landed his first job in a hotel, and has since fallen in love with the ever-changing hospitality industry. Having been with Hilton for over 25 years, he travels a lot, and was part of the team that headed to new markets Hilton was entering to train up people. Growing up in the UK, Ben spent a few years in Bangkok, before calling Singapore home for the last 12 years, and is a huge fan of the immense cultural diversity in this region.

Ben, you were originally training to be an architect. How did you get into hospitality?
It was a bit of a mistake, if I’m honest. When I was going to work, towards the end of school, I wanted to be an architect. I went to a hotel in the UK in Bournemouth on an open day and was talking to people. I ended up having a prolonged conversation with someone. For some strange reason, we’d never been in conversation as to what it was he did. We’d just ended up having a conversation about what I wanted to do and things like that. And it was quite a wide conversation. It wasn’t specific about architecture, ironically.
So, it was slightly strange, two weeks later I got a letter from this individual, offering me an apprenticeship, for want of a better word. It turned out he was the deputy general manager of this particular hotel.

I was fascinated by the idea of actually earning money and getting out of the education system and into the work life. So, I thought, “I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll start and see where it takes me.” And I enjoyed it, obviously.

I started off as a chef and spent a fair amount of time in the kitchen and then moved through the various departments. And then ended up in front office, my first permanent position. And that was it. I was in the hotel industry and it went from there.

Did you find that being in the front office gives you a better view of what the customer wants?
In front office, you get to see every type of customer at their best and their worst. I was very, very lucky and probably the most educational job that I ever did in hotels in the early part of my career, was as a night manager. When you are a night manager in a hotel, you are everything to the customer. You are checking in, you’re checking out, but also you have to deal with everything that comes up during the course of the night.

So you do get to see every type of customer and in every type of situation, so you learn a lot. You had to be very adaptable, which was fun.

It wasn’t with Hilton that you started, was it?
No, I didn’t start with Hilton originally. I started off with a smaller hotel company in the UK called Crest Hotels, which was eventually bought out by Trusthouse Forte. Then I moved to Hilton quite quickly. I started off at Hilton in 1991, in Warwick. And then I moved around the UK: Warwick, Stansted… Then I went to London and then I got an opportunity to move to Watford. Our corporate office was in Watford at the time – that was in about 1993 – so it was an opportunity to move towards the corporate offices and hopefully get noticed. By this time, I’d moved out of front office into finance.

In about 1996-97, there was a conversation with some people in the UK as to whether or not I’d be interested in starting doing this new thing called revenue management. I’d done a few years in finance and, liking numbers, I fancied the idea of trying to impact the future and using the maths side of my knowledge to predict what was going to happen in the future and do something about it.

Quite quickly after starting in revenue management, I joined the corporate office, originally going around the UK and then around the world. When we open a new hotel, we implement the systems and you have to train the teams on the different systems they would use. It was a great opportunity to start travelling a little bit further afield.

How did you end up being based in Singapore?
There are many things about the hotel industry that, I think, make it a great industry to be in. If you want to, you can travel around the world. Back in 1999, I got an opportunity. We had Y2K. Everybody was worried about what was going to happen at midnight. I was part of a group of people who travelled around the world, training hotels, preparing them for what would happen if midnight struck and everything went wrong.

So I went around the world doing that. I was lucky enough to come to Kuala Lumpur to train Southeast Asia on what to do, and then I came up to Seoul and did the same project there. That was the first time I’d ever been to Asia and within 12 hours of arriving in Kuala Lumpur, I thought, “Wow!” The energy and the vibrancy – everything – was infectious. Then it was a question of wanting to find an opportunity out here. I waited and waited, and in 2001, I got an opportunity to move out here. I was based in Bangkok for three years, looking after revenue management in Southeast Asia. At the beginning of 2006, I moved to Singapore, and I’ve been here ever since.

Are there any other destinations you’d like to experience? Or do you think that you’re settled here in Singapore?
I think I’m settled in Singapore. The logic behind that is, for me, Asia – and when I say Asia, I’m talking in the bigger sense of the world, so Japan, Australia, India, Southeast Asia and China – it’s changing so quickly. Just look at Singapore today compared with 10 years ago. And that’s a relatively mature market for Asia.

If you look at China or you look at India, one of the things that really attracted me about Southeast Asia was the appetite to learn and to grow and to change. It was the attitude and the energy. Things are changing so much. You’re part of creating something that is going to be here forever. That was fun. And every country’s really different. In Europe, every country’s different of course, but when it comes to the challenges you have to solve, France is not that dissimilar to Spain or Germany. Whereas here, even city to city, some of the challenges are different, so that makes it really fun.

What does the modern Hilton traveller want from their stay?
I think there are a few things. I think it’s ease. Great hotel rooms should be like a ‘home away from home’. In today’s world, we’re probably closer to being able to deliver that than we’ve ever been before.

Technology is enabling that, obviously. Towards the end of last year, we created what we call the ‘innovation gallery’, which is a centre in Washington – where our headquarters are – that allows team members to come up with ideas, throw a whole bunch against the wall and see which ones work. If you could open up Hilton and say what’s in Hilton’s DNA, innovation would be key. It’s something we’ve had since Conrad Hilton started with the company 99 years ago.

We have the Hilton Honors App, which allows our loyalty members to book rooms, obviously, but it also goes a few steps beyond that. Once they’ve booked a room, 48 hours before check-in, they can go into the app and see a replication of the hotel through floorplans. And those floorplans are embedded with Google Maps so they can see and choose their room, based on any particular floor they want, based on the bed type. They can see precisely where that room is located vis-à-vis the elevator or vis-à-vis a particular road that they want to be near or far away from. That then allows them to use the app to check in 24 hours before arrival and handle all the processes online. Normally, that is the last thing you want to do after a long-haul flight. They can use the app as their room key. For me, it’s about creating ease for customers.

That’s been in operation now for about three years and it’s proving very successful; we have it in about 3,000 hotels, or a little over 50% of our properties. And the next time you’re coming back to the hotel, you can prompt which room you liked.

Lately, we’ve been thinking about how to take that to the next level, and this really is where we get into the ‘home away from home’. We currently have a ‘Connected Room’ in about four hotels as a beta, and this is the next generation of that feeling. This is guests sharing with us what they want to share. Let’s say you’ve just finished Episode 5, Season 2 of Stranger Things on Netflix. When you check in, the hotel will know you’re arriving and staying in that Connected Room, and it will have Episode 6 ready for you to watch. It will have your Netflix account. It will have your Spotify account. It will have your photos, for the digital photo frames in your room. So you’ll actually be able to cast your digital movies, music, images into that room.

If you share with us what temperature you like your room set at – 21 degrees when you’re sleeping, say – we know that information. Because of proximity to your smartphones nowadays, we know how far away you are from the room. So it will say, OK, you’re checking in, you want it 21 degrees, and it will pre-set the room to 21 degrees. It’s getting really clever.

The more data you share with us, the more personalised we can create the experience for you. It really is creating your home away from home.

Apart from technology, what other trends are seeing in Hilton’s customers?
The evolution of travel is now more experiential. We’re asking ourselves, how do we create experiences for an individual?

Linking back to the Hilton Honors program, one of the challenges of loyalty programs is knowing what to do with the points that customers accrue. Most loyalty programs will allow you to redeem those points for hotel stays, which is great, but what we’ve done at Hilton over the last few years is really looking at how can we give customers another outlet for those points.

We have this thing called Hilton Honors Access, which is really about creating experiences, those we deem as ‘money can’t buy’ experiences. As part of this, we partner with McLaren Formula 1 racing team and have done so for about 11 years now. Through our relationship, we can create packages for events such as the Melbourne GP. Customers can use their points to bid for a place to join us. We get them into the Paddock Club, they get to meet the drivers, they go into the pit and, obviously, get to watch the race from the McLaren suite.

That’s just one example of how you can create experiences. We did something up in Tokyo two years ago where we arranged for an Honors member to have private sumo wrestling lessons with a grandmaster and go to a sumo tournament. Yes, it’s not for everybody, but it was something that you’re never going to have access to otherwise.
There have also been more accessible events over the last couple of years, things such as music events, which are much less valuable, points-wise. But through our partnership with Live Nation, one of the bigger event management companies, we can even get tickets to sold-out concerts, like Coldplay, who played in Singapore last April.

Even if a Hilton Honors member only stays once a year, we want to make sure they have access to something that means something to them and creates an experience.

How can luxury travel advisors use these tools as a selling point for their clients?
We spend a lot of time with travel advisors showing them exactly what we do so they can use this as a selling point for their customers. It’s probably still a little early for the Connected Room; it’s in beta across four of our properties in the US, and they are near our corporate offices, so we can refine and tweak. The plan is to go to scale about next year.

The digital key is now across just over 3,000 hotels around the world. We spend a fair amount of time with travel agents, showing them that this is what we can do, which helps. And the take-up has been fantastic over the last three years.

We have a separate division that sits within our sales function and works with a set of field agents who are deployed across different markets within Asia-Pacific, but also around the world, and their sole job is to get out to travel agents, take them through what we’re doing, the new hotels we’re opening, the new technology we’re deploying, the new functions that will help them sell to customers.

What are your expansion plans, particularly for the Australian market?
The most exciting thing recently in Australia was the opening of a Curio West hotel in Sydney, which is a fantastic addition. Stunning hotel in a great location. That opened towards the end of last year and it’s really going very well. We’ve also got expansion plans coming up in Perth. We are hopeful of being able to announce some new things in Melbourne in the not-too-distant future.

DoubleTree is a brand that has come into the market reasonably recently, and there have been some great additions of the DoubleTree brand across Australia.

Outside of Australia, the most exciting hotel we’re opening this year, from our perspective, is Waldorf Astoria Bangkok. And then the next Waldorf Astoria is in the Maldives and that’s opening probably Q1 next year.

We’re also returning to Taipei for the first time in about 16-17 years. Taipei is one of those markets that we’ve been trying to get back into for a long period of time, and it’d be great to be able to say towards the end of this year we’re back. That’s a conversion. And Hilton Manila, a new-build, is opening, which is the first time Hilton has been in Manila for quite a long time.

At the Conrad Maldives, we’ve now got an undersea residence. We understand that there are some people who would like to go downstairs, but maybe not sleep below the water. So we have two levels. So there’s a bedroom downstairs, which is undersea obviously, but then there are two bedrooms upstairs, above the water, and are all part of the same residence. Plus a living room, and a deck outside with an infinity pool.

One out of every four hotel rooms being built across Asia-Pacific carries our flags. The expansion is a journey, and it’s a fun journey to be part of.

Where does Australia as a market rank in terms of importance for Hilton?
Australia for us is in a critical market. One, obviously, because of the domestic market in Australia itself. But more than that, if you go back 10-15 years ago, Australia as a source market for resorts overseas were focusing on Fiji, Bali and Phuket. But that’s changed a lot over the last few years. Australians are travelling a lot more to the Maldives, and also to other markets across Southeast Asia. So it is a big market for us, and that’s just from a leisure perspective. If you then add in the corporate perspective, where we obviously have massive BHP Billiton and other big corporations from Australia, it’s a very important market for us.

How important are travel advisors to your business?
Critical. I mean, that certainly is true in Australia, but true also in Japan. And they are going to be around for a long period of time. I can’t stress enough for us, our responsibility and our hope is to continue to work with the travel advisors. We need to be where customers want to book, and there’s a huge section of our customers who want to talk to a travel agent, they want to talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about and they want to be able to look through a brochure and make a choice.

There are also a number of customers who actually like to do that themselves online. What we’re keen to do is ensure we have the right relationships with each and every endpoint, so the customer can choose.

What does luxury mean to you?
I think luxury, to me, personally, means fulfilling a dream. It’s about an aspiration. Some people would say time to think is a luxury. So for me, luxury is just space and an experience that is out of the normal, out of the ordinary. And that can be as simple as a comfortable bed with an amazing sleep experience. I’m not trying to tie everything back to Hilton, but at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai, one of the most luxurious things to me is, when I get into bed at the end of a day and my head sinks into those pillows, they are just so soft. The lights are out immediately. That for me is a luxury, because sleep is premium.

What has been your best coffee experience?
It comes back to the whole world experience, because the best one caught me by surprise. We were on holiday in Boracay, the week before it closed, and we were staying at a hotel that we’d stayed at once before. We were returning because of the experience. My girlfriend and I were having breakfast in the morning and the message on the coffee, the chocolate on the cappuccino, was welcome back, and it quoted our names. That’s not an expensive thing to do, but it’s just the thought that goes into it. It was just … wow!

If it happened every single day, every single time, it would lose its specialness. So it’s got to be original. Wow, that’s impressive.

Before we checked out, I actually asked if I could meet the general manager. Within two seconds of meeting him, I realised where it was coming from. It was him. It was his attitude, his energy, his way of being. You could see that was emanating throughout the hotel. And it was brilliant.

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